Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is a common herb with pink or white flowers that grows throughout Europe and Asia. Its roots have a sedative action and it is widely considered one of the most calming herbs available. Valerian root extracts are used to calm nervous anxiety and stress, reduce muscle tension and promote a refreshing night’s sleep.
How valerian works
Valerian contains a number of unique substances (such as valeric acid, valepotriates) that act together in different ways to produce significant, positive effects on stress and anxiety. Valerian raises levels of an inhibitory brain chemical, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), to damp down the over-stimulation caused by stress. This sedative effect results from a direct inhibition of enzymes that break down GABA in the brain. Valerian roots also contain appreciable amounts of GABA but it is uncertain whether these can be absorbed or cross the blood-brain barrier to produce a direct effect. Valepotriates are also converted into a sedative substance called homobaldrinal. Another substance present in valerian roots (hydroxypinoresinol) has been shown to interact with benzodiazepine receptors which may account for some of its effectiveness, although it is not habit-forming in the same way.
Valerian for anxiety
Valerian is effective in relieving emotional symptoms due to stress such as anxiety, low mood, loss of initiative, feeling unsociable, irritability and difficulty in sleeping. A preliminary study compared the effects of valerian root extracts against both placebo and the prescribed anti-anxiety drug, diazepam. This showed that both valerian and diazepam produced significant reductions in anxiety symptoms.
Valerian root extracts have also been used to help treat withdrawal symptoms and rebound insomnia, which can occur when stopping use of benzodiazepines such as diazepam.
Valerian for sleep
Within the UK, valerian is classed as a traditional herbal medicine and is licensed to aid sleep and relieve sleep disturbances. My other half swears by it and takes it every night! In general, those taking valerian extracts fall asleep more quickly and wake less frequently during the night than those taking placebo.
A large analysis of data from 16 studies involving 1093 patients found that valerian doses, preparations, and length of treatment varied considerably. However, among the best quality studies, valerian root extracts produced a statistically significant benefit with an 80% greater chance of improved sleep compared with placebo. No side effects occurred.
One trial compared the effects of taking a valerian root extract (600mg) for six weeks against the prescribed sleeping tablet, oxazepam; both treatments produced similar improvements in feelings of refreshment after sleep, exhaustion in the evening, duration of sleep and dream recall. More patients taking valerian assessed their treatment as very good however, compared with those taking the prescribed hypnotic drug (82.8% versus 73.4%).
Importantly, valerian extracts does not have a negative effect on reaction times, daytime alertness or concentration the morning after taking it to aid sleep (unlike most prescribed hypnotic drugs).
Valerian for restless legs syndrome
When 37 people with restless legs syndrome took either 800mg valerian root extracts or placebo for 8 weeks, those receiving valerian showed significant improvements in restless legs symptoms and a reduction in daytime sleepiness compared with those taking placebo.
Valerian is often used together with other calming herbs such as lemon balm and hops and, in the US, is available combined with melatonin (the natural sleep hormone). Valerian may also be used together with St John’s Wort to relieve depression.
Valerian root dose
Usual dose is 250–800 mg valerian root extracts, two or three times a day for treating anxiety or stress.
For sleep, take 300 mg to 600mg valerian root extracts half an hour before bed time.
Select standardized products containing at least 0.8 per cent valeric acid.
Valerian root side effects
Valerian is non-addictive, and does not produce a drugged feeling, hangover effect or reduce reaction times next morning, as it promotes a natural form of sleep whose architecture is preserved. However it may cause mild drowsiness which will affect your ability to drive or operate machinery.
You can read a typical Valerian Patient Information Leaflet here.
Valerian root interactions
Valerian should not be taken by anyone using prescribed sleeping tablets.
Avoid alcohol when taking valerian.
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